The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to Read more

A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

At Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.” Guest post from Erica Read more

Exosomes as potential biomarkers of radiation exposure

Exosomes = potential biomarkers of radiation in the Read more

reactive oxygen species

Oxidative stress ain’t about free radicals, it’s about sulfur

This recent paper in Circulation, from Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues at the Emory Clinical Cardiovascular Research Institute, can be seen as a culmination of, even vindication for,  Dean Jones’ ideas about redox biology.

Let’s back up a bit. Fruit juices, herbal teas, yogurts, even cookies are advertised as containing antioxidants, which could potentially fight aging. This goes back to Denham Harman and the free radical theory of aging. [I attempted to explain this several years ago in Emory Medicine.]

We now know that free radicals, in the form of reactive oxygen species, can sometimes be good, even essential for life. So antioxidants that soak up free radicals to relieve you of oxidative stress: that doesn’t seem to work.

Dean Jones, who is director of Emory’s Clinical Biomarkers laboratory, has been an advocate for a different way of looking at oxidative stress. That is, instead of seeing cells as big bags of redox-sensitive chemicals, look at cellular compartments. Look at particular antioxidant proteins and sulfur-containing antioxidant molecules such as glutathione and cysteine.

That’s what the Circulation paper does. Mining the Emory Cardiovascular Biobank, Quyyumi’s team shows that patients with coronary artery disease have a risk of mortality that is connected to the ratio of glutathione to cystine (the oxidized form of the amino acid cysteine).

How this ratio might fit in with other biomarkers of cardiovascular risk (such as CRP, suPAR, PCSK9, more complicated combinations and gene expression profiles, even more links here) and be implemented clinically are still unfolding.

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Providing the potent part of probiotics

A Emory News item on a helpful part of the microbiome focuses on how the same type of bacteria – lactobacilli – activates the same ancient signaling pathway in intestinal cells in both insects and mammals. It continues a line of research from Rheinallt Jones and Andrew Neish on how beneficial bacteria stimulate wound healing by activating ROS (reactive oxygen species).

Asma Nusrat, MD

A idea behind this research is: if we know what parts of the bacteria stimulate healing, perhaps doctors can deliver that material, or something very close, to patients directly to treat intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

This idea has advanced experimentally, as demonstrated by two papers from Jones and Neish’s frequent collaborator, Asma Nusrat, who recently moved from Emory to the University of Michigan. This team had shown that a protein produced by human intestinal cells called annexin A1 activates ROS, acting through the same N-formyl peptide receptors that bacteria do.

Nusrat told me Friday her team began investigating annexins a decade ago at Emory, and it was fortuitous that Neish was working on beneficial bacteria right down the hall, since it is now apparent that annexin A1 and the bacteria are activating the same molecular signals. (Did you know there is an entire conference devoted to annexins? I didn’t until a few days ago.)

In a second Journal of Clinical Investigation paper published this February, Nusrat and her colleagues show that intestinal cells release vesicles containing annexin A1 following injury. The wound closure-promoting effects of these vesicles can be mimicked with nanoparticles containing annexin A1. The nanoparticles incorporate a form of collagen, which targets them to injured intestinal tissue. Read more

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Nox4 inhibitor expands its reach to A-T

Emory dermatologist Jack Arbiser has been investigating (and recently patented) inhibitors of the enzyme Nox4 as potential anti-cancer drugs.

Nox4 has emerged as a potential therapeutic target in ataxia-telangiectasia, a rare multifaceted genetic disorder that leads to neurological problems, a weakened immune system and an increased risk of cancer. Ataxia-telangiectasia (or A-T) is caused by a defect in ATM, a sensor responsible for managing cells’ responses to DNA damage and other kinds of stress.

In a February PNAS paper, researchers at the National Cancer Institute led by William Bonner report that a Nox4 inhibitor can dial back oxidative stress and DNA damage in ataxia-telangiectasia cells, and can reduce cancer rates in a mouse model of the disease. Nox4 was activated in cells and tissue samples obtained from A-T patients.

The Nox4 inhibitor the NCI team used, fulvene-5, was originally identified by Arbiser in a 2009 Journal of Clinical Investigation paper as a possible treatment for hemangiomas, a common tumor in infants that emerges from blood vessels.

David Lambeth, an expert on the NADPH oxidase family of enzymes, and his team recently described Nox4 as an “hydrogen peroxide-generating oxygen sensor.”

 

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Statins, prostate cancer and mitochondria

In honor of Fathers’ Day, we are examining a connection between two older-male-centric topics: statins and prostate cancer.

Statins are a very widely prescribed class of drugs used to lower cholesterol levels, for the purpose of preventing cardiovascular disease. In cell culture, they appear to kill prostate cancer cells, but the epidemiological evidence is murkier. Statin effects on prostate cancer incidence have been up in the air, but recent reports point to the possibility that starting statins may slow progression, after a man has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Winship Cancer Institute researchers have some new results that shed some light on this effect. John Petros, Rebecca Arnold and Qian Sun have found that mutations in mitochondrial DNA make prostate cancer cells resistant to cell death induced by simvastatin [Zocor, the most potent generic statin]. Sun recently presented the results at the American Urological Association meeting in Orlando.

In other forms of cancer such as breast and lung cancer, genomic profiling can determine what DNA mutations are driving cancer growth and what drugs are likely to be effective in fighting the cancer. The prostate cancer field has not reached the same point, partly because prostate cancers are not generally treated with chemotherapy until late in the game, Petros says. But potentially, information on mitochondrial mutations could guide decisions on whether to initiate statin (or another) therapy.

“This is part of our soapbox,” he says. “When we are looking at mutational effects on prostate cancer, let’s be sure to include the mitochondrial genome.”

Winship’s Carlos Moreno and his colleagues are working on the related question of biomarkers that predict prostate cancer progression, after prostatectomy surgery and potentially after just a biopsy.

Read more

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Fine tuning an old-school chemotherapy drug

First approved by the FDA in the 1970s, the chemotherapy drug cisplatin and its relative carboplatin remain mainstays of treatment for lung, head and neck, testicular and ovarian cancer. However, cisplatin’s use is limited by its toxicity to the kidneys, ears and sensory nerves.

Paul Doetsch’s lab at Winship Cancer Institute has made some surprising discoveries about how cisplatin kills cells. By combining cisplatin with drugs that force cells to rely more on mitochondria, it may be possible to target it more specifically to cancer cells and/or reduce its toxicity.

Cisplatin emerged from a serendipitous discovery in the 1960s by a biophysicist examining the effects of electrical current on bacterial cell division. It wasn’t the current that stopped the bacteria from dividing – it was the platinum in the electrodes. According to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies, cisplatin became known as “cisflatten” in the 1970s and 1980s because of its nausea-inducing side effects.

Cisplatin is an old-school chemotherapy drug, in the sense that it’s a DNA-damaging agent with a simple structure. It doesn’t target cancer cells in some special way, it just grabs DNA with its metallic arms and holds on, forming crosslinks between DNA strands.

But how cisplatin kills cells is more complicated. Along with the direct effects of DNA damage, cisplatin unleashes a storm of reactive oxygen species.

“We wanted to know whether the reactive oxygen species induced by cisplatin had a driving role in cell death or was more of a byproduct,” says postdoc Rossella Marullo, who is the first author of a recent paper with Doestch in PLOS One.

One possible analogy: after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the fires were even more destructive than the initial shaking. When asked whether to think of the reactive oxygen species production triggered by cisplatin in the same way as the fires, Doetsch and Marullo say they wouldn’t go that far.

Still, they have uncovered a critical role for mitochondria, cells’ mini-power plants, in cisplatin cell toxicity. The researchers found that mitochondria are the source of cisplatin-induced reactive oxygen species in lung cancer cells. Cancer cell lines that lack functional mitochondria* are less sensitive to cisplatin, and cisplatin’s damage to the mitochondria may be even more important than the damage to DNA in the nucleus, the authors write. However, mitochondrial damage is not important for cisplatin’s less potent [but less toxic] cousin carboplatin.

Cancer cells tend to have a warped metabolism that makes them turn off their mitochondria. This is part of the “Warburg effect” (experts in this area: Winship’s Jing Chen and Malathy Shanmugam). Cancer cells have an increased uptake of sugar, but don’t break it down completely, and use the byproducts as building materials.

What if we could force cancer cells to rely on their mitochondria again, and at the same time, by giving them cisplatin, make that painful for them? This would make cisplatin even more toxic to cancer cells in particular.

The drug DCA (dichloroacetate), which can stimulate cancer cells to use their mitochondria, can also increase the toxicity of cisplatin, at least in cancer cell lines in the laboratory, Marullo and her colleagues show.

Doetsch and radiation oncologist Jonathan Beitler are in the process of planning a clinical trial combining DCA with cisplatin for HPV (human papillomavirus)-positive head and neck cancer. The trial would test whether it might be possible to use a lower dose of cisplatin, reducing toxicity, by combining it with DCA.

“We’ve relied on cisplatin’s efficacy for decades, without fully understanding the mechanism,” Beitler says. “With this new knowledge, it may be possible to manipulate cisplatin’s action so it is more effective and less toxic.”

The applicability of cisplatin and mitochondrial tuning may depend both on cancer cell type and metabolic state, Doetsch adds.

*Cell lines that lack mitochondrial DNA can be obtained by “pickling” them in ethidium bromide, a DNA intercalation agent.

 

 

 

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Antioxidants are no panacea

Derek Lowe, a respected science blogger and drug discovery expert who was blogging when this writer was still working in the laboratory, today has a roundup of a concept that anyone hanging around Emory might have clued into already.

Namely, antioxidants aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Judging from the messages Gafas Ray Ban outlet to shoppers in the supermarket vitamin aisle, everybody needs more antioxidants. But evidence is accumulating that in some situations, antioxidants can be harmful: negating the adaptive effects of exercise on muscle tissue or even encouraging tumor growth, Lowe writes.

At Emory, Dean Jones has been patiently explaining for years that cells are not simply big bags with free radicals, thiols and antioxidants sloshing around indiscriminately. Instead, cells and oxidation-sensitive components are highly compartmentalized. Take for example, this recent paper in Molecular & Cellular Proteomics from Jones and Young-mi Go. Two major antioxidant systems in cells, glutathione and thioredoxin, function distinctly and independently, they show.

In a related vein, Kathy Griendling’s and David Lambeth’s labs were at the center of the discovery that reactive oxygen species are not only poisons that overflow from mitochondria, but important signals involved in many aspects of cell biology.

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How beneficial bacteria talk to intestinal cells

Guest post from Courtney St Clair Ardita, MMG graduate student and co-author of the paper described. Happy Halloween!

In the past, reactive oxygen species were viewed as harmful byproducts of breathing oxygen, something that aerobic organisms just have to cope with to survive. Not any more. Scientists have been finding situations in humans and animals where cells create reactive oxygen species (ROS) as signals that play important parts in keeping the body healthy.

One example is when commensal or good bacteria in the gut cause the cells that line the inside of the intestines to produce ROS. Here, ROS production helps repair wounds in the intestinal lining and keeps the environment in the gut healthy. This phenomenon is not unique to human intestines. It occurs in organisms as primitive as fruit flies and nematodes, so it could be an evolutionarily ancient response. Examples of deliberately created and beneficial ROS can also be found in plants, sea urchins and amoebas.

Researchers led by Emory pathologist Andrew Neish have taken these findings a step further and identified the cellular components responsible for producing ROS upon encountering bacteria. Postdoctoral fellow Rheinallt Jones is first author on the paper that was recently published in The EMBO Journal. Read more

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Magnanimous magnolias keep on giving

Honokiol, the versatile compound found by Emory dermatologist Jack Arbiser in the cones of magnolia trees, makes a surprise appearance in a recent paper in Nature Medicine.

Jack Arbiser, MD, PhD, and colleagues originally isolated honokiol from magnolia cones. It can also be found in herbal teas.

The paper, from Sabrina Diano, Tamas Horvath and colleagues at Yale, probes the role of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates appetite. In the paper, Horvath’s laboratory uses honokiol as a super-antioxidant, mopping up ROS that suppress appetite. Arbiser initiated the collaboration with Horvath after finding, while working with Emory free radical expert Sergei Dikalov, how effective honokiol is at neutralizing ROS.

The paper is intriguing partly because it’s an example of a situation where ROS, often thought to be harmful because of their links to aging and several diseases, are actually beneficial. In this case, they provide a signal to stop eating. A recent paper from Andrew Neish’s lab at Emory provides another example, where probiotic bacteria stimulate production of ROS, which promote healing of the intestine.

Arbiser notes that since honokiol can increase appetite, the compound may be helpful in situations where doctors want patients to eat more.

“This might be particularly valuable in patients who are nutritionally deficient due to chemotherapy and provides a rationale for adding honokiol to chemotherapy regimens,” he writes.

Satiety producing neurons in the hypothalamus

A note of caution: in the Nature Medicine paper, honokiol is infused directly into the brain.

Honokiol has been shown to counteract inflammation and slow the growth of blood vessels (important in fighting cancer). Collaborating with Arbiser, Emory endocrinologist Neale Weitzmann has recently found that honokiol stimulates osteoblasts, the cells that build bone, suggesting that it could reduce bone loss in osteoporosis.

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Dispelling confusion about probiotic bacteria

While humans have been consuming fermented foods such as yogurt and kimchi for centuries, a visitor to a modern grocery store can see the recent commercial enthusiasm for adding probiotic bacteria to foods. A recent article in Slate explores the confusion over potential health benefits for these added bacteria.

The bacteria that live inside us seem to play an important role regulating metabolism, the immune system and the nervous system, but scientists have a lot to learn about how those interactions take place.

Researchers at Emory have been clarifying exactly how probiotic bacteria promote intestinal health. Andrew Neish and his colleagues have found that the bacteria give intestinal cells a little bit of oxidative stress, which is useful for promoting the healing of the intestinal lining.

Beneficial bacteria induce reactive oxygen species production by intestinal cells, which promotes wound healing.

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Targeting antioxidants to mitochondria

Why aren’t antioxidants magic cure-alls?

It’s not a silly question, when one sees how oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species have been implicated in so many diseases, ranging from hypertension and atherosclerosis to neurodegenerative disorders. Yet large-scale clinical trials supplementing participants’ diets with antioxidants have showed little benefit.

Emory University School of Medicine scientists have arrived at an essential insight: the cell isn’t a tiny bucket with all the constituent chemicals sloshing around. To modulate reactive oxygen species effectively, an antioxidant needs to be targeted to the right place in the cell.

Sergei Dikalov and colleagues in the Division of Cardiology have a paper in the July 9 issue of Circulation Research, describing how targeting antioxidant molecules to mitochondria dramatically increases their effectiveness in tamping down hypertension.

Mitochondria are usually described as miniature power plants, but in the cells that line blood vessels, they have the potential to act as amplifiers. The authors describe a “vicious cycle” of feedback between the cellular enzyme NADPH oxidase, which produces the reactive form of oxygen called superoxide, and the mitochondria, which can also make superoxide as a byproduct of their energy-producing function.

Read more

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